Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Nordic Skate Revolution

Nordic ski racers now have a wide variety of events to choose from or to specialize in, with sprint racing (usually under 1.5 km), the standard classic (kick and glide) freestyle (skating) races (which range from 5 km local citizen races to 70+ km European marathon races). Recent additions include continuous pursuit races (usually ranging from 10 km to 30km), where racers ski classic for half the distance, and switch skis, poles, and techniques. It used to be a lot simpler. Through the 1984 Olympics, the standard distances were 15, 30, and 50 km for men, and 7.5, 15, and 30 for women, all a single technique.

Nordic skiing technique with the traditional kick and glide was relatively stable, if not staid, for more than 100 years through the 1960s, but the advent of trail grooming with machines plus lightweight modernized ski equipment (think Mrs. Robinson’s husband in The Graduate, encouraging Plastics!) set the stage for a revolution that rocked the 1980s.

Finnish great Pauli Siitonen is credited with the first shots of the skating revolution in the early and mid 1970s. His “Siitonen step” was simply a series of short skates that were employed around turns, as a means to accelerate in the transition between returning to the standard kick and glide.

According Bill Koch, who will go down in history as the eminent innovator of the skate revolution, speaking a clinic in Colorado years ago, sometime in the mid-late 1970s, Siitonen (or one of the top Scandinavian racers of the time) completely missed his kick wax on one of those tricky 30 – 34 F days, when it’s snowing, wet, and nothing works for the ski to grip long enough to generate power. “He stripped off his wax and just skated the whole course and won the race by three or four minutes, instead of a minute or two,” Koch recalled. “We just thought, Wow what an animal! But then we went back to the old way of skiing.”

By 1980 or 1981, throwing a few skates around turns or at the crest of a small hill was common practice for racers at all levels, but everyone used the traditional kick and glide technique throughout the races. But Koch, who had won the USA’s only Olympic medal ever, a surprise silver in 1976, was always looking for an advantage to get back on the podium at World Cup and championship races. In 1982 Koch had perfected the “marathon skate” where he would keep one ski in the tracked groove while propelling himself with his free ski. [photo] Koch won the overall World Cup title that year, a feat perhaps greater than his Olympic medal. He was even featured in a Sports Illustrated article by Kenny Moore, who described the marathon skate technique and reported on Koch’s sub-two hour 50k time trial, which was on a small loop on a pond in New England.

Although this first-ever feat did not capture the world’s imagination as did Bannister’s first sub 4 mile 28 years earlier, it was certainly noteworthy—considering that Koch averaged sub 4 for 31 consecutive miles! To put this in perspective, it would be like if a world class marathoner developed a new running technique and went out to a track and knocked 20 minutes off of the fastest times seen at Boston, London, or the Olympics.

Meanwhile, the traditionalists disapproved of skating, and some claimed that it didn’t even constitute real skiing, but the revolution was in motion. Next year Koch won a bronze for the 30k at the World Championships, which is the last time a US skier has medaled at that level. By the 1984 Olympics in Sarejevo, in the former Yugoslavia, skiers who wanted to be competitive were skating much if not most of the races. Rule makers implemented some restrictions, including a “no skate rule” over the first and last 200 meters of a race course. Ironically, the Norwegian Aunli was disqualified in those Games for skating at the finish of a race in which he had easily medaled. The Norwegians had been among the most ardent supporters of the traditional technique.

Through the 1984 Olympics, however, everyone skied with kick wax for the hill climbs, and they used skating for turns, flats and gentle slopes. But during the 1984 Polar Cup and 1984-85 World Cup season, the V1 skate (link to V1 technique) evolved and skiers began to race the entire distance on “waxless skis” (i.e., no kick wax), where the skis were waxed with parafin from tip to tail. The 1985 World Championships in Seefeld, Austria were highly controversial, with all the top finishers skating, leaving those using the traditional technique far back in the standings. At the time, talk ranged from banning skating from all races (European traditionalists), to leaving classic technique to the beginners and recreational skiers (Koch and skating revolution allies).

During the 1985 - 1986 season, it appeared that classic skiing was a technique of the past, as all the top racers skated. However, the International Ski Federation (FIS) convened and decided to bring back the traditional technique, and to have two separate types of skiing for Nordic racing: freestyle and classic. Some athletes protested, including Koch, who said that “classic skiing was being artificially propped up” by traditionalists. Nevertheless, for 20 years now, Nordic racing has enjoyed success and expansion as a multi-discipline sport, and no one seems worse off for it. In fact, if you work on both, you’ll become a better all-around skier than if you just do one.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Lights Within the Tunnel

How do you handle the darkness?

That is the most frequent question asked by people from the lower 48 to Alaskans. The image held by many is 20-24 hours of darkness a day. Unless you're well above the Arctic Circle, a claim that only a few thousand Alaskans can make, it isn't quite that dark. For example, Fairbanks only has only three hours and forty two minutes of daylight on the shortest day, but with the low angle of the sun there is a lingering morning and evening twilight, which adds nearly three hours of light. So if you want to get technical, our nights are only 17.5 hours. Nevertheless, that's a long night, because anything over 15 or 16 hours seems quite long.

Now into our third winter in Alaska, here are some ways that we have used to adapt to the short-days and long nights.

Full spectrum lighting -- If you can't find it naturally, then fake it. The bulbs are quite expensive, about $25 or $30 each, but they put out a white light that mimics natural light 95% to 97%. This makes a huge difference over conventional incandescent lights. We didn't use full spectrum lights until after Christmas 2004, when we found that getting up in the morning was extremely difficult, and we were always tired and lethagic in the evening, unable to concentrate on anything. The kids were disoriented and would stay up late only to wake up frequently, not knowing when they should get up in the morning. We bought five bulbs for the house and use them in key areas such as the dining room, study, and bedrooms. We noticed an imediate improvement, and the energy saving lights have lasted two years already.

Get outside at mid-day -- Provided that you have a lunch break or some flexibility, just getting outside for a bit between 11:30 and 1:30 can also help tremendously. From early December through mid-January I will either schedule a ski or run at that time, or if things are too busy, I'll go for a short walk outside, even if it's -30 F! Ten or fifteen minutes will do. I also try to work in any errands so I can get outside and into what light there is, if not for a few minutes.

Ignite the fire within -- Find a winter passion, preferably outside, and stoke the flame. I love cross country skiing and ski racing; ample skiing was a big incentive to move here. Throughout the winter I'm always preparing for the next set of races or just getting out for 45-60 minutes to enjoy the day. It doesn't matter if you're out at mid-day or at night under the lights, simply getting outside to burn some energy is what makes winter here great. For others, mushing fuels the passion for winter. A hard-core running group is outside a good 350 days a year, disdaining the indoor track or a treadmill. Ice fishing, snow machining, and bird watching are popular weekend activities. Just getting outside, doing something you love to do, is usually enough to drive away any winter blahs.

Recycled sunlight -- Combusting the stored end products of photosythesis is a great way to break up the long winter night. Last year we needed to thin out our woodlot for a State sponsored fire prevention program. I cut dozens of trees and we piled up several cords of wood and slash. Perfect for a mid-winter bonfire. Invite some friends and you have a party, and nothing beats tending to a warm blaze, with mesmerizing embers glowing mystically into the sub-Arctic night.

Taking in the night -- Okay, it's below zero and it's dark three-fourths of the time, but with snow cover a moonlit night is almost as bright as late twilight. Moonlight ski outings or mushing parties give a great excuse to go out at night with friends. When it's clear at night, about half the time, the stars here are very bright. Weird though, to see Alaska's iconic Big Dipper behind you, to the south, and the North Star? It's right above your head, its angle of sight leading just a few degrees north.

The best, however, is the aurora borealis, which is usually active several nights a week. Caused by ions in the upper atmosphere that originated from solar flares a few days earlier, the aurora can be enough to stop traffic--even among the most seasoned Alaskans. More than 100 miles up, sometimes expanding across the entire northern horizon, the aurora dances, a diffuse ionic curtain that drifts as a surrealistic ribbon of faint light. It's usually green with a hint of purple on the margin, but on a good night you can see red and pink.

Go with flow of change -- One of the first things you would notice here if you stayed more than a couple of weeks is how fast the light conditions change. At the winter solstice, the train of light slows and slows until we reach a dimness which nearly stops in the tunnel. Today, December 22, we gained one second of light, tomorrow it will be fifteen seconds. By New Year's we'll get two minutes more daylight, and by Ground Hog's day, the length of daylight will have doubled, and we'll be gaining more than five minutes a day.

So, indeed there is a light challenge here--out of lux, if you will. But within weeks this too shall pass, as we head into February and March, two of the best non-summer months of the year.

(Photos by Mikko Sayre)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Into the Eye of the Tunnel

Happy Solstice! At 65 degrees north latitude this is a big day, with celebrations, sales, and fireworks. It's also the oddest and perhaps most trying time of year. The sun does not rise until 11 in the morning and it appears for only three hours and forty two minutes, but even that's just a token. Sol's zenith, at about 10 degrees above the horizon, gives off some decent light, maybe for an hour or two, but the it is not high enough to do much. In town it is usually obscured behind buildings and exhaust clouds. Out in the open its rays skitter across tree tops, often melting the snow on the upper reaches while the lower branches remain endlessly frosted and snow covered. At this time of the year, the sun seems distant and weak, as if taking a three week layover in Seattle or Vancouver.

The effects of low light are real, both physically and psycologically. A lack of light stimulates the production of melatonin (
C13 H16 N2 O2), a versatile hormone that regulates your sleep cycle, but it also appears to have benefits as an anti-oxidant, and perhaps helps with immunity. However, melatonin is a close biochemical cousin to seratonin, which has strong effects on mood. Evidence suggests that high melatonin can be linked to depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

3-D image of melatonin (

So how does it feel to have your blood and brain dowsed with heavy loads of melatonin? I find that it tells me to shut down. I crave sleep, especially in the morning when it takes hours to "wake up." You have that feeling of having just gotten out of bed, but it lasts until sunrise some four or five hours later. And by mid-afternoon you're ready for a nap. Forget about staying up late for a movie! Besides, who needs movies when your dreams are vivid, memorable, and bizzare, often playing out in what seems like real time. Melatonin also affects your appetite. You want to eat a lot, especially starches and fats. I also seem to want a little wine (eh, make it a lot!)with every dinner, instead of just a couple times a week.

Let nature take its course and I'd just want to sit around the house, doing not much of anything but watching every variety of CSI episode ever made, drinking wine or liquor, and eating unhealthy quantities of artery-clogging food.

Tomorrow: Fighting back! How we cope with low light and its effects.